“Like any family, they go through differences … but we don’t need any divorce lawyers.” This is how Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, described his country’s relationship with Russia in mid-April 2020, the day after the world’s top oil-producing nations had finally reached an agreement on reducing output to stabilize plummeting prices.
The minister’s comments gloss over how fiercely Riyadh waged its price war against Russia after the latter refused in early March to commit to deeper cuts to its output than previously agreed with OPEC members and other oil producers. Moscow’s refusal was based on its growing unease that previous reductions had only served the interests of U.S. shale oil producers unconstrained by any commitments, and on the unease about the cavalier fashion in which the Saudis sought to impose their will on their partners.
While both concerns were valid, the timing of the Russian decision was extremely ill-chosen, as it came right at the time that the pandemic was already ruining the world economy. Even though it was Saudi Arabia that immediately started dumping its oil on the market, Russia was equally blamed for starting the price war and doing damage to other producers, including the United States. The Russian calculus that they were in a stronger financial situation to win in the standoff with the Saudis proved to be right, but again it did Russia little good.
Apart from the Kremlin’s fateful slowness in understanding the full scale of the pandemic’s impact on the global economy, President Vladimir Putin may have misread the reckless Saudi leader. Putin’s famous high-five greeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) during the 2018 G20 summit in Argentina—at a time when MBS was under attack internationally following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul—created the impression of a perfect rapport and affinity between the Russian president and the Saudi crown prince. Moscow did not use the journalist’s murder to try to ostracize MBS, and Putin’s gesture was aimed at creating a lasting relationship. So far, he has lost his bet. Yet Putin, who has gained much experience managing the region’s strongmen, from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to Turkey’s Recep Erdogan to the Iranian leaders, is probably unperturbed: Saudi Arabia remains a key player in the region where Moscow has returned after a quarter-century absence.
While the Russian and Saudi leaders looked unable to resolve their dispute, U.S. President Donald Trump intervened personally to help them reach a deal. While Trump’s intervention might have irritated Putin, the trilateral accord placed Russia alongside Saudi Arabia and the United States as a member of the world’s Oil Big Three. Thus, the United States has for the first time entered an international understanding not only as an energy consumer, but also as a top producer. Even though Trump did not assume any formal commitments, he made the United States a party to a global oil compact. In principle, this newly formed triangle could be an asset for Moscow’s foreign policy in the future.
Although Trump’s involvement was very visible, much hard lifting had to be done by the Russians and the Saudis themselves, behind the scenes. Efforts to come to agreement began soon after the start of the price war. Next to Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak, Moscow’s official point man for the oil talks, Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, long tasked with attracting investors from the Gulf region, was another prominent figure. His access to the Kremlin and his high-level contacts in the United States allowed him to have a pivotal role.
Going forward, Russia will not necessarily align with the Saudis against the United States: it appreciates the strength of the Saudi-U.S. connection, and should be wary of Riyadh playing Moscow off Washington. While the personal connection between Putin and MBS helped boost economic ties between the two countries, the bilateral trade turnover in 2019 stood at a little more than $1.6 billion. In particular, the Kingdom bought 120,000 tons of wheat, which is considered a breakthrough. Still, Moscow should be careful with expectations. Over the years, the Saudis have time and again indicated their interest in concluding large-scale contracts with Russia, including for the S-300 air defense system, which never materialized in actual deals.
The Russian-Saudi relationship in the Middle East is checkered. Moscow and Riyadh used to be bitter opponents in Syria in the years right after the start of the Russian military intervention there. Later, however, the two countries managed to find some common ground to engage in limited cooperation. In the kaleidoscope of Middle Eastern geopolitics, Saudi Arabia foots Egypt’s bills for Russian military hardware, and in neighboring Libya, Riyadh and Moscow are on the same side backing the army of General Khalifa Haftar and the eastern Libyan authority in Tobruk. On other regional issues, however, Russia and Saudi Arabia have serious differences.
The Saudis are fully focused on their regional rival, Iran, that partners with Russia in Syria and buys arms from Moscow. The Russo-Iranian relationship is outwardly friendly, but competitive, squarely based on interests rather than trust. The Saudis have been recently trying to wean Moscow off Tehran, but the Russians, true to their basic approach in the Middle East to maintain contacts with all relevant parties while not taking anyone’s side other than their own, have professed willingness to develop relations with both sides across the Gulf. In 2019, they even unveiled a security concept for the region and actively sought to promote it. On another regional issue, the war in Yemen with Saudi direct participation and Iranian involvement, Russia used to seek an internationally brokered peace settlement. However, these efforts have slackened in the past two years.
Thus, amid the pandemic, the Russian-Saudi ties have taken a serious test, and have largely survived. Typically for Moscow’s current relations with the countries in the Middle East, a few shared interests with its partner are flanked and occasionally overshadowed by serious divergencies. This produces an inherently unstable mix and calls for a highly pragmatic approach. For Russia to succeed in pursuing its regional interests—upgrading its geopolitical standing, securing strategic outposts, promoting arms sales, co-setting oil prices, luring investment to Russia, and so on—it needs to have active relations with the key Middle Eastern powers, including Saudi Arabia. And, given the nature of the political regimes in both countries, much will depend on the personal relationship between the two leaders.